currents National Park Service
Virginius Island
Introduction
Historic Overview
Existing Conditions
Assessment & Analysis
Preservation Philosophy
Implementation & Management
Outreach & Education
Summary
map
bibliography
credits

Color lithograph of Virginius Island, ca. 1857 by Thomas Sachse, Baltimore. NPS Photo

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introduction
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the owners of a small thirteen-acre island took advantage of its proximity to the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia to develop the only privately-owned land in the vicinity with water-powered mills and industries. The island, which became known as Virginius Island, lies in the Shenandoah River adjacent to the Lower Town area of Harpers Ferry and below the high cliffs of shale formed by the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The industries established here supported the federal armory operation. During the Civil War, one of the most prosperous of such businesses, Herr's flour mill was destroyed; its stone shell remained standing well into the next century. In spite of efforts to rebuild the island community during the post-Civil War period, the floods of 1870 and 1889, as well as those that followed, left an indelible mark, eventually destroying the old mills and residences alike. Although primarily occupied by a residential population after the 1870 flood, the island continued to be minimally utilized for industrial purposes. However, in 1935 the last mill associated with the island community ceased operation.

The record flood of 1936, which destroyed two automobile bridges and permanently damaged many buildings in Harpers Ferry, brought an end to life on Virginius Island. A subsequent flood in 1942 carried water and deposited debris over the island, by then uninhabited by families, workers, or entrepreneurs. As in 1936, no one remained to clear away what receding floodwaters had left behind. With these events nature began to rapidly reclaim Virginius Island, to bury and to conceal remnants of more than a century of history.

 

1890s post card view of the island. NPS Photo

Vintage publications, stereographs and post cards, guides and diaries perpetuate the myths and legends that surround the Virginius Island story. Indeed, they give life to the silent ruins that have lain partially concealed and obliterated by river fill and vegetation since the 1936 flood. Coupled with Thomas Jefferson's 1783 description of the wild beauty of the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry found in his Notes on the State of Virginia, these documents reveal an early admiration for the picturesque quality of the Shenandoah River landscape. In 1838, Bartlett's American Scenery included a rendering of the sweeping westward view up the Shenandoah, near Virginius Island. In his Picturesque America travelogue of 1872, William Cullen Bryant published a lengthy description of the natural grandeur of the river gap. He also noted both the historic and mysterious qualities found in the remains of buildings destroyed by the war.

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